New Study Raises Questions About RTI Implementation

Response to Intervention (RTI) is an instructional method that has become increasingly common in the nation’s schools, particularly in the early grades. In fact, about 70 percent of school districts with elementary schools utilize RTI in some form. RTI is most commonly used for literacy instruction in the early grades, providing early intervention services to students at risk of reading failure or other academic or behavioral problems. The early intervention services provided by RTI have been credited with reducing the number of students identified as having learning disabilities.

The RTI framework is fairly straightforward. All students, regardless of academic performance, receive consistent, high-quality instruction in the general classroom setting, known as Tier 1. While the majority of students are expected to successfully learn the content at this tier, some students need additional supports in a Tier 2 setting. These students are provided with interventions, such as small group instruction in specific literacy skills. Students who receive Tier 2 interventions but still continue to struggle move to Tier 3 where they receive extra interventions and possible referral for special education evaluation. The theory of RTI makes sense: identify struggling readers early and provide immediate, specialized interventions so that students are able to catch up to their peers and not fall further behind.

But a new study from the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) casts doubts on the efficacy of the RTI method for improving student literacy. The study tracked the reading performance of 24,000 first, second, and third grade students in 13 states and over 100 individual schools who either received Tier 2 literacy supports or who were right on the cusp of needing Tier 2 intervention. Both groups of students were made up of students who were not currently meeting reading expectations. By using this method, researchers were able to examine the effects of RTI supports by comparing the reading scores of two similarly situated groups of students, one of which received Tier 2 supports and the other which continued to receive only the regular Tier 1 instruction that all students receive.

The results of the study are surprising. The second and third grade students who received Tier 2 supports experienced no significant reading benefits from the interventions. But what’s most surprising is that first graders who received Tier 2 interventions actually did worse than their peers who did not receive targeted assistance. In fact, first graders who received Tier 2 supports scored 11 percent lower than their similarly situated peers who did not receive the targeted interventions. According to the report, this negative effect is equal to about one-tenth of a year less learning than what the students would have received if they had not been provided with Tier 2 supports.

It’s important to point out that the study found significant variations between schools in the effectiveness of their RTI program. Of the 119 schools that were studied for first grade, 15 school’s RTI programs were found to have significantly negative findings while four schools reported significantly positive results (see below chart). This amount of school variation makes it difficult to draw broad conclusions about the overall effect of RTI, and the report explicitly states that, “it would be misleading to conclude from these findings that providing increasing intensity of services to the students most at inappropriate or ineffective.”

New Study Raises Questions About RTI Implementation

Other than school variation, what are other possible causes of the negative effects experienced by many first graders who received RTI supports? The report points to three possible factors that might have contributed to the negative impacts: 1) incorrect identification of students for intervention, 2) mismatch between the reading needs of the students and the actual interventions received, and 3) poor alignment between core reading instruction received in the general classroom and the targeted interventions offered to Tier 2 students.

Due to the wide amount of school variation found in the study, new research should closely examine the different ways in which individual schools implement RTI in an effort to identify best practices. Luckily, the NCEE plans to make their study data available to other researchers who wish to gain a better understanding for the large school variations in effects of RTI implementation. "


Aaron Loewenberg is a program associate with the Education Policy program at New America. He is a member of the  Early & Elementary Education team, where he provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.